Ah, the old west. It’s good to be back. Techland’s last Juarez title (The Cartel) opted for a modern setting and suffered from a large dose of ‘bloody awful’ leaking from every festering orifice. So, um yeah, we weren’t fans.
However, I was a huge fan of the game before that, Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood, which featured a fantastically realised Wild West setting during and after the Civil War. After the mega success of Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption, you would have thought that Ubisoft would have insisted Techland cranked out a Wild West follow up to Bound in Blood. Well, several years later (now that the Wild West bandwagon has long gone) we have one in the form of Gunslinger, a low-priced download-only game.
Reason for concern? Lack of ambition? Low budget productions values? You won’t find any of those here. Much like Blood Dragon, Ubisoft are really pushing the envelope on the limits of what we expect from a downloadable title. Gunslinger, although certainly not without its faults, puts many full priced FPS games to shame.
You are Silas Grieves, a grizzled old gunslinger retelling his tall tales in exchange for a few drinks in a small, sleepy town saloon. Silas claims to have fought alongside the likes of Billy the Kid and duelled against legendary outlaws including Jesse James, John Hardin, Butch Cassidy and more.
You play through these stories in a campaign that lasts around five hours with Silas narrating throughout. It’s a different framing device for a story than a traditional FPS game and it varies from enjoyable to grating. He talks a lot you see, sometimes you just wish he’d quit interrupting for a minute. But as a tale of one man’s journey to his revenge, it serves its purpose well.
Sometimes the action pauses while Silas takes time to explain something and we even see events rewound to be replayed differently. For example, when foiling a bank robbery you get to play out the common story, then the rumoured version before Silas’ true recollection of events. Sometimes it works, others it feels like a cheap way of padding out the game by making you replay near identical scenes. Sections of the game world also sometimes magically appear. A ladder for example, that Silas hadn’t previously noticed, or a huge rock miraculously lifts itself out of your way. These parts never feel right and threaten to ruin the sense of immersion.
Onto the gun slinging. While I can appreciate some degree of wonky accuracy to reflect the period in which the game is set, sometimes I got the feeling that something’s a little broken with many carefully aimed shots missing entirely. It doesn’t help that shots that do hit, but don’t kill, aren’t reflected in any sort of animation. Enemies don’t even flinch unless it’s a finishing shot, then a bucket of blood spills from the damning wound.
Focused aiming can be unlocked, where after a few seconds of aiming down the sights it zooms in a touch to hopefully ensure a perfect headshot. Those few seconds also provide plenty of time for the AI to unload a few shots into your face. For better or worse, those varmits are a lethal shot.
When taking damage under heavy fire the screen drunkenly blurs, making it infuriatingly difficult to see targets. This is where you’ll want to activate Concentration Mode, a limited powerup that paints targets red and slows down time. Racking up a group of kills here feels very empowering and is a great way of getting yourself out of a tight spot. The powerup also allows you to dodge enemy bullets when you spot them tunnelling through the air towards you. Death can be cheated at the last gasp if another metre is full. The action pauses then focuses on your would-be killer leaving you to dodge left or right to avoid the lethal last bullet.
A combo system is in place to score XP during each stage. Multipliers are rewarded for stringing together kills, with extra points awarded for headshots, shots through cover, moving targets and so on. Enemies aren’t numerous enough to really get combos going though apart from a few select scenes. When you level up though, you can use skill points to acquire new skills across three trees. One for a revolver-focused gunslinger, one for a rifle specialist and the other for shotguns.
Having really enjoyed the rifles in the 2009 game, I went down this route, upgrading skills like focused aiming and faster reloading. Reloading buffs aside, the skills didn’t have a massive impact on the game. However, if you spread your purchases out amongst the three trees you’ll be able to work your way towards easier combo multipliers and upon finishing the story New Game + mode is unlocked allowing you to restart with all your unlocked skills intact.
Seeing as the combo system can’t really be maintained during the story mode, you can extend the story by searching for Nuggets of Truth, collectible items that contain notes of the characters, locations and legends. They manage to be interesting enough to make looking a worthwhile endeavour.
Boss fights come in two flavours. One involving an arena against an enemy with a health bar and a penchant for Gatling guns or lobbing dynamite with circle strafing and taking cover being the best approaches. The other style is the traditional duel. Using both analogue sticks, you try to keep your wandering gun hand over your holster as close as possible for a hand-speed bonus and the other stick controls the target circle over your opponent to build up focus. Honourable gunslingers will wait for the other side to draw first, then tap RT to draw and RT again when your aim is lined up. Dishonourable types can draw early to increase their chances, but will receive little XP.
I went through the game trying to play it honourably for every duel. This meant many restarts, as the drawing system is fiddly and unresponsive at best and poorly explained. On reflection, I should have just gunned them down at the poker table, the way many of these infamous outlaws actually died.
While the combo system doesn’t really fit with the campaign, it works much better in the separate arcade mode. Stages are short and packed with enemies lining up to let you rack up decent multipliers. There’s a separate unlock system here, making it easier to get higher scores the more perks you unlock. With only one life per stage and each weapon’s low ammo capacity, it’s a tough mode but the online leaderboards make it fun for score chasers.
Gunslinger utilises two graphical styles, traditional and cel-shaded, leaning more towards realism than the cartoony world of Borderlands. The black lines make some of the forests and shrubbery uneasy to focus on, but some of the vistas are truly stunning, especially the woods high up in the mountains. Despite my reservations over some the cel-shaded elements, there’s no denying this is probably the best-looking download-only game on the market and at this price it’s one of the best shooters released solely on a digital platform.
- Great value at £11.99 / 1200 MS Points
- Impressive graphical detail
- Arcade mode utilises the combo system well
- Some of the cel-shading feels out of place
- The odd wayward bullet
- Duels lack intensity and responsiveness
The Short Version: Here’s a game that refuses to be tied down by a digital-only release. The Western setting is a breath of fresh air to the usual Generistan sandy hellholes or grey corridors. Sometimes the aiming feels a little untrue, but the story entertains over at least five hours and the score-chasing combo fun of the arcade mode was a much better idea than tacked on multiplayer.